Let’s talk about tanking.

It’s actually not as easy as it might seem to pull off a really successful tank job. First of all, no one is going to convince players to throw games, and NBA coaches aren’t coaching players to do the wrong thing so that a game is lost. So, you have to give a coach a roster of players so bad that they won’t be able to coach them to victories.

Additionally, along the way you have to think about the future, and you don’t want players who will be a part of the future of your franchise getting so downtrodden by losses that they no longer believe in themselves. 

So, if you really want to lose a lot of games you have to play a lot of players that won’t have any part in a team’s future and you have to put enough mediocre, inexperienced and young players together that they won’t be able to win, despite their efforts and desire.

For a lot of people, when they think about a tanking NBA team, the first thing that comes to mind are The Process-era Philadelphia 76ers from about 10 years ago — a team that was specifically constructed over the course of multiple years to lose games so that they could increase their chances at multiple top draft picks.

We’re talking about a team that lost 26 straight games at one point in the 2013-14 season. They finished that year with just 19 wins and during the 2014-15 season they won just 18 games.

Those rosters featured players like Jarvis Varnado, Elliot Williams, Hollis Thompson, Furkan Aldemir, Henry Sims, JaKarr Sampson and former BYU captain Brandon Davies.

Although Utah Jazz fans will be familiar with Davies because of his local ties, that is a list of players who played a ton of legitimate minutes for the Sixers but who probably couldn’t be identified by even the most dedicated NBA fans.

Try guessing which teams these players are on now. Go ahead and try.

Want a hint?

Well, none of them are in the NBA, so that eliminates at least 30 teams they could be on.

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The locker room after some of those Sixers losses deep into the 2014-15 season was a bleak place. The players knew exactly why they’d been put together. They knew that the front office didn’t believe in them. They knew that they were a scheduled win for nearly every team they faced and that they were just a stepping stone.

You could practically see the last slivers of confidence slip out of a player’s face. In the Sixers locker room the air was heavy with a feeling of disbelief and a desire for it all to be over.

Now let’s compare that to what the Jazz did this year.

The Jazz front office absolutely orchestrated a complete teardown and rebuild of the team. But instead of the top priority being the highest possible draft pick, the top priority was future flexibility.

So the Jazz traded away their best and brightest players for a king’s ransom. Over the course of a single offseason, Jazz brass filled the asset cupboards, which had been completely bare, to the brim.

But, they also brought back legitimate NBA players in trades made during the offseason. When Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk, Collin Sexton, Walker Kessler, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Talen Horton-Tucker looked around the gym during training camp, they didn’t see a roster that was full of G League-level players or players whose careers would collapse soon after leaving the Jazz. They looked around and saw a lot of talented NBA players, and they were right.

The Jazz had too much talent to lose a ton of games and newly minted head coach Will Hardy used all of the low outside expectations to fuel a competitive environment where every player wanted to prove that they were not a cog in a tank machine.

Of course, the Jazz front office wouldn’t have lost any sleep if the Jazz were a team clearly destined for losses, but the directive to Hardy was clear — coach the team to win and let’s see what we have in these players.

Well, it turns out what the Jazz have is an All-Star in Markkanen, a top-three Rookie of the Year candidate in Kessler, and a developing 3-and-D threat that is getting better every day in rookie Ochai Agbaji.

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After spending the majority of the season evaluating the roster, the Jazz brass made the road to victories a little harder for Hardy — trading away Conley, Vanderbilt, Beasley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. But the gaps left by the outgoing players left a place for Horton-Tucker to grow and flourish, for newly signed Kris Dunn to show that he’s elevated his game, for Damian Jones to show that he’s a reasonable reserve center, and for the rest of the roster to continue to develop.

I think that it’s clear the Jazz didn’t take the route of a hard and obvious tank. But, I also think that there are various ways to tank, and I look at the way the Jazz have approached this season as tank-lite.

The Jazz absolutely made moves to deplete the roster (twice). But they didn’t strip everything away to the absolute bare bones. They have some meat left with some really good players.

Are they going to be ultra cautious with injuries? Certainly. Are they going to encourage the success of their young core? Definitely. Will they be happy if they can do that but also manage to get a top-five draft pick? Ab-so-lute-ly.

But, if the Jazz are able to keep their players from losing their confidence, if they can promote a healthy culture, and even after all the roster massaging it means that the Jazz end up in the Play-in Tournament, will the front office still be happy. Yes.

Why?

For all the Sixers’ efforts during their tanking years, the best thing they were able to get directly from the draft was Joel Embiid, who was a No. 3 overall pick. They also picked Jahlil Okafor with the No. 3 pick in 2015, Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall selection in 2016, and Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 pick in 2017.

Getting the highest possible draft pick does not guarantee anything, and it doesn’t take long to look around the league and see that draft position is not always the best indicator of greatness. Denver’s Nikola Jokic, who could be headed for a third consecutive NBA MVP honor, was a second-round pick. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th pick in the draft. Even the Jazz’s own Kessler and Agbaji were the 22nd and 14th picks in the 2022 draft.

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The way the Sixers have managed to remain a playoff team despite some disappointing draft picks has been through other deals and signings. And, in order to do deals like that, a team needs assets.

The Jazz are in a position to make blockbuster deals many times over with the future assets they have and even if they end up in the Play-In, they still are going to have a pretty high draft pick, as well as Minnesota’s first-round pick and, coincidentally, probably Philadelphia’s first-round pick (the Jazz will get the least favorable pick of Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia). 

Tank-lite has allowed the Jazz to have the best of both worlds.

Even though those within the Jazz front office would never publicly admit that they are tanking, that’s probably because there is such a harsh association that comes with that term.

They didn’t do what the Sixers did. They didn’t obliterate this team and strip it down to nothing. But, they certainly didn’t try to build a team meant to win a title this year. They didn’t prioritize wins. 

The lite version of tanking allowed this team to fill the asset cupboards and develop some foundational players while still looking forward to some really good draft lottery odds. It’s kind of a have your cake and eat it too situation.

So, as you watch the final games of the Jazz season, and as you wonder what their draft position will be, and if you find yourself rooting for losses, remember that this team wasn’t actually constructed to lose like a traditional tanking team. This is tank-lite. There might be a few more wins than you expected.

The Philadelphia 76ers bench is shown in the closing minutes of their 103-95 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on March 31, 2014, in Atlanta. That team finished the season with only 18 victories. | Jason Getz, Associated Press